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How to Write in First-Person Point of View: Dos and Don’ts

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

Point of view is the eye through which you tell a story. First-person point of view gives readers an intimate view of a character’s experience.



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3 Reasons to Write in First-Person Point of View

When you’re writing a story, you have several points of view to choose from such as third-person limited or second-person omniscient. Though a writing in a third person point of view or second-person point of view certainly has its advantages, first-person narration has a unique ability to provide the reader a front row seat to the story. Writing in first person can also improve your writing in the following ways:

  1. First person POV gives a story credibility. First-person point of view builds a rapport with readers by sharing a personal story directly with them. Bringing the reader in close like this makes a story—and storyteller—credible. From the opening line of Herman Melville’s epic sea tale, Moby Dick, the reader is on a first-name basis with the narrator: “Call me Ishmael.” This familiarity creates a relationship with the narrator, leading the readers to believe that what they are about to hear is a true story. When a writer breaks that narrative trust by leading readers astray—either through a narrator who deliberately lies or a characteristic of the narrator that compromises their credibility—it is known as an unreliable narrator.
  2. First-person POV expresses an opinion. A narrator tells a story through a lens filtered by their opinions. In the first-person POV, the use of the pronoun “I” establishes a sense of familiarity between reader and narrator, allowing the writer to subtly influence the reader by telling a story with a bias. Scout is the six-year-old narrator in To Kill A Mockingbird and the story is told with the innocence and naiveté of a child’s worldview. The author, Harper Lee, had several characters to choose from, but telling this story about race in the American South through this young character’s eyes forces the reader to examine and question the inequalities of race in the same way that Scout does.
  3. First-person POV builds intrigue. First-person perspective limits a reader’s access to information. They only know and experience what the narrator does. This is an effective tool for creating suspense and building intrigue in stories, particularly in thrillers or mysteries. For example, John Watson is the narrator in almost all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Keeping Holmes, the protagonist and main character, at arm’s length makes him more interesting, but it also allows the reader to be just as surprised as Watson when Holmes finally cracks a case. Readers tend to identify with characters who are learning like they are.

How to Write in First-Person Point of View

Once you’ve decided to write your story in the first person, use these tips to guide your narrative voice:

  1. Write an opening like Melville. Let the reader know you’re using a first-person narrative right away as Melville did in the opening line of Moby Dick with “Call me Ishmael.” Introduce the narrator’s voice within the first two paragraphs to create a bond with your readers from the start.
  2. Stay in character. When using the pronoun “I,” it’s easy to slip out of your character’s voice and into your own as the author. When you’re writing, stay true to your POV character’s voice.
  3. Create a strong narrator. Make your first-person narrator an interesting character to make the story really work. Give them a strong voice and a solid backstory that influences their perspective.
  4. Make sure your supporting characters are strong. When writing in the first-person present tense or past tense, it’s easy to focus solely on your narrating protagonist. However, it’s equally important to give your narrator a lively group of secondary characters who can support, challenge, and illuminate the traits of your protagonist. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, one of the reasons our narrator is so compelling is that she has a diverse and dynamic group of supporting characters to interact with.
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3 Things to Avoid When Writing in First-Person

Here are some common pitfalls to avoid when writing in first person for the first-time:

  1. Avoid obvious tags. In first person, avoid phrases that take the reader out of the character’s thoughts—for example, “I thought” or “I felt.” While one of the advantages of first-person writing is knowing what the narrator is thinking, don’t get stuck in the character’s head. We also want to see through their eyes, so use visual language to show the reader around their world.
  2. Don’t start every sentence with “I.” Starting every line with “I” can become repetitive; vary your sentences by illustrating thoughts or feelings. Instead of writing “I felt tired walking through the deep snow,” try “The mountain was buried in snow, making every step feel like a mile.”
  3. Your main character doesn’t always have to narrate. It’s easy to assume that your protagonist should be your narrator in a first-person story, but that shouldn’t always be the case. In first-person peripheral, the narrator is a witness to the story, but they are not the main character. In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald created the character of Nick, who tells the story of Jay Gatsby trying to win the love of Nick’s cousin, Daisy. Telling the story this way keeps the focus on the protagonist but also creates some distance, so the reader is not privy to their thoughts or feelings. Narrating the story in this way keeps Gatsby as a mysterious character and enables Nick to tell the story with a slant, drawing on his experience with Gatsby and his opinion of him to color the narration. Consider the different characters in your novel or short story and decide which particular character should tell your story.


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